I’ve put off writing about Tibet for a long time, mostly because I quite simply did not know where to begin. It was an intense time; the anticipation building from my first arrival in Chengdu a full week before our departure, and then two weeks of dealing with the emotional highs and lows that come with such a trip.
There was heaps to learn about Tibetan Buddhism and culture. There was frustration at being stuck in a car with a guide on a fixed itinerary, rather than out travelling with the people and making it up as I go along like I usually do. There were yaks, lots of them. There were rolling hills, towering peaks, icy lakes and grassy plains. There were beautiful, fascinating, welcoming people. There were all the difficulties that come with having a complete stranger for a travelling companion.
There was cold, wind, a sudden mountain storm, warmth, snow, a dust storm, and yes, even some sunshine. There were a million (or so it seemed) monasteries to visit, each one unique in its own way. There were sacred places, caves and hermitages, monuments and ruins. There was heartbreak on behalf of the Tibetan people. There were many, many bowls of yak noodle soup to eat. And of course, there was stunning scenery.
So where do I start? At the heart of Tibet, the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. It’s THE pilgrimage site if you are a Tibetan Buddhist, the holiest place in all of Tibet, and people come from all over the country to worship here. A visit to the Jokhang is an assault on the senses and the soul, and on one’s idea of what spirituality, faith, and devotion really mean.
Rather unfittingly, it begins with a metal detector at the entrance to the Barkhor Square area. I then proceed down an alley lined with colourful stalls selling everything a pilgrim needs. There are zillions of prayer beads, amulets and charms of every kind, cowboy hats, khata scarves, incense, monks’ bowls and robes, all sizes of prayer wheels, candles, yak butter, Tibetan style men’s coats and striped women’s aprons, statues of Buddha and other religious figures, warm socks and gloves and hats and long underwear, colourful prayer flags, mats as well as knee and hand pads for prostrations, Thangka paintings, chunky Tibetan style jewelry, and more.
I turn a corner and I am swept into a stream of pilgrims of all shapes, sizes, and ages. Some are in Western style clothing, some in Tibetan dress. Several are monks or nuns. A few have children or dogs with them, and occasionally they are in conversation with a companion. Many carry prayer wheels, spinning them constantly, always clockwise. All are carrying prayer beads, carefully moving their fingers from one to the next while saying a mantra for each, through all 108, and then again, and again. Everyone is moving in a clockwise direction down the streets around the Jokhang, on what is known as a kora.
I join this parade of people, and am surrounded by the sounds of dozens of voices around me softly chanting and humming their prayers to themselves; when one comes closer I can almost make out the words ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ in my ear, before it is drowned out by another voice, murmuring a different mantra.
A few pilgrims are doing full-body prostrations. They take three steps, stop, get down on their knees and then their hands and lie down flat on their stomachs, touching their foreheads to the ground, before standing back up in the same spot, taking three more steps, and doing it again.
They may have done this for hundreds of kilometres, for weeks, months, or even years to get to Lhasa and the Jokhang. This is the ultimate act of devotion, and they have the scars on their foreheads to prove it.
So what’s so special about the Jokhang?
In the 7th century there lived a king named Songtsen Gampo, who moved the capital of Tibet from the Yarlung Valley to Lhasa, and more importantly here, is credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet.
To ease diplomatic relations with Tibet’s neighbours and to introduce Buddhism to the country, he married two princesses, Princess Tritsun from Nepal and Princess Wencheng from China. Each princess brought with her a Buddha statue, known as the Akshobhya Vajra (Nepalese) and the Jowo Sakyamuni (Chinese), and a temple was built to house each one. However, work done on the Rasa Trulnang Tsuglag Khang, built for the Akshobhya Vajra, was undone every night. Through divinations it was learned that Tibet was positioned on the back of a demoness, who was inhibiting the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet. To pacify her, the king built twelve temples at specific locations around Tibet and then finally finished the the Rasa temple, which is built at the exact spot of the heart of the demoness, and thus is considered the gateway to the underworld.*
When King Songtsen Gampo died, Princess Wencheng feared an invasion by the Chinese, and so she switched the statues, hiding the Jowo Sakyamuni in a secret compartment in the Rasa temple. Many years later, the statue was uncovered and has remained in the temple to this day, and the place is now known as the ‘Shrine of the Jowo’, or Jokhang.*
Outside the Jokhang are rows of people prostrating, and the air is filled with the sound of their hand pads sliding over the concrete as they bow down before the building. Added to that is the tinkling of tiny rocks being poured over a larger, decorated stone into a cloth in some pilgrims’ laps. My guide said that they are symbolically ‘purifying the earth’.
We join the queue of devotees going inside, where people are pressing together in the line, anxious to get inside to the most sacred place they know. There is a hum of expectation in the air.
Inside is a large central chamber, with the Jowo Sakyamuni in the centre. He is beautiful, decorated with jewels and surrounded by offerings of flowers and fruit.
In the dim, flickering light, I can see that lining the walls there are many small doorways, each with a low beam to duck under and a threshold to step over. These are the chapels, each dedicated to a different deity, monk, or king. Statues of the figure along with their assistants, disciples, or students sit in front of murals depicting their lives or Buddhist legends. There is just enough room for the pilgrims to circumambulate a yak butter candle.
We go in several of the chapels, treading carefully; the stone floor is slightly slippery with yak butter residue. We see the most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism; Songtsen Gampo, Guru Rinpoche, Tsongkhapa, Tara and Maitreya.
The pilgrims queue up and go in every single one, hands folded together in prayer or clutching their prayer beads. They move quickly, dripping yak butter into the candles and bowing to the deities, murmuring their mantras the whole way.
The air is heavily scented with incense and yak butter, mixed with the unique smells of an ancient wooden building as well as those of hundreds of humans passing through every hour; yak, horse, human sweat, and curry are a few that dominate.
The atmosphere is dark and shadowy, peaceful, but busy and filled with life. Babies cry as they are waiting to be blessed. A steady hum fills the air; the sound of chanting, of hundreds of pilgrims reciting different mantras, each in their own world of prayer and devotion. An ancient-looking worshipper is allowed to go past the barrier and right up to the famous Jowo Sakyamuni. When I ask why she can but no one else, I am told that it is out of respect for her age.
I am slightly outside of my comfort zone. My head tells me that as a tourist I don’t really belong here, observing but not participating. Despite all the times I’ve sat and quietly watched people at places of worship, I’ve always felt like such devotion is a private thing, and not one to be openly gawked at by outsiders. But no one here seems to mind or even acknowledge my presence.
I feel like I could stay in this building for hours, just watching the pilgrims and soaking up the atmosphere.
Before we leave we go up to the roof, where we find fantastic views over Barkhor Square and the surrounding rooftops strung with prayer flags, as well as beyond to the Potala Palace and the mountains around the city. It’s almost a relief to be up here, in the fresh air and the sunshine, in surroundings much more familiar to me than the intense religious one below.
This is a place that permeates the soul like no other. Walking the kora with the pilgrims, witnessing the endless prostrations outside, standing within this ancient sacred place, seeing and hearing and feeling all that goes on here means experiencing a depth of spirituality and a dedication to religion that both far surpass anything I have a frame of reference for. It’s incredible how very essential it is to these pilgrims that they make the journey to this most holy place in Tibet, and nowhere else in the world have I seen people devoted enough to their faith to actually prostrate themselves every three steps all the way from their homes to a pilgrimage site.
Visiting the Jokhang is an enriching experience, no matter what your beliefs may be. Rest assured that it will leave a mark upon your consciousness that you won’t soon forget.
Have you visited the Jokhang? What was your experience? Have you been to any other spiritual sites that affected you this way?
*Due to my terrible memory, info is from http://sacredsites.com/asia/tibet/jokhang_temple.html